Newly Renamed Hunter Student Research Conference Honors UVA’s First Black Woman Graduate

By Laura Hoxworth

The annual celebration of student research, renamed this year for Louise Stokes Hunter ‘53, will include new research on her life conducted by a UVA EHD doctoral student.

For more than a decade, the annual student-led research conference at the School of Education and Human Development has provided a unique opportunity for graduate and undergraduate student researchers to gain valuable experience proposing, preparing, and presenting their work in a supportive community of peers and faculty.

While that central mission remains, this year’s event on Friday, March 26, will introduce two significant changes: a new virtual format and a new name.

When the UVA Board of Visitors voted in 2020 to drop “Curry” from the name of the School of Education and Human Development, organizers knew they would need to move quickly to reconsider the conference, created in 2010 as the Curry Research Conference. A team of students on the planning committee worked closely with faculty advisors through a thorough renaming process, ultimately deciding to name the conference in honor of Louise Stokes Hunter ’53.

Maggie Thornton, a fourth-year doctoral student and a member of the committee, learned about Hunter during 2020 celebrations related to the 50th anniversary of women being admitted as undergraduates at UVA.

Hunter completed her doctorate in education from the School of Education and Human Development in 1953, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the University. She then returned to Virginia State University, where she spent her career mentoring Black students, particularly Black women, in math and physics.

“I felt that we were not doing enough to celebrate her accomplishment as the first Black woman to earn a degree from UVA, so I took the idea to the larger student research committee,” Thornton said. “We decided to name the conference after Dr. Hunter as a way to recognize her decades of mentorship of students throughout her career as a professor.”

Alexa Miller Quinn, a fourth-year doctoral student and the head of this year’s student planning committee, said the decision was not taken lightly. “The committee was interested in honoring someone from an underrepresented population who we hadn’t honored before,” she said. “It’s a symbol, but I think it’s a powerful one.”

With support from the School’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES), Thornton then started a larger research project to catalogue as much information as possible about Hunter’s life. Through Virginia State University, she connected with Hunter’s descendants, who have given their blessing. When the project is complete, CRPES will publish a website with details on Hunter’s life.

The project has already uncovered new information about Hunter’s groundbreaking achievements. “We now believe that not only was Dr. Hunter the first Black woman to graduate from UVA, she may have been the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard,” Thornton said.

Organizers will share some of what they have learned about Hunter as part of the conference’s opening session on Friday, and Hunter’s granddaughter, Yvette Washington, is slated to attend and speak.

The 2021 conference will be held completely online, offering virtual paper, poster, and works-in-progress sessions on topics across all four of the School’s departments: Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education; Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy; Human Services (Counselor Education, Clinical and School Psychology, Speech Pathology and Audiology), and Kinesiology.

Throughout the planning process, the committee drew from their own experiences with online events to design the new format. They considered a host of virtual tools and platforms, ultimately settling on a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous sessions using Zoom and Canvas, two tools that students are already comfortable using. Quinn said the goal was to take advantage of the benefits of an online space while recreating as much of the interactivity and community support of an in-person setting as possible.

“We were intentional about leveraging what we’ve collectively learned about online experiences, without creating additional hurdles for students who are new to the academic research space,” she said.

This year’s topics include teacher turnover in early childhood education, ACL reconstruction outcomes, equity and social justice competencies among principals, professional development for rural computer science teachers, post-stroke language recovery, and more. Aaron Lyon, a child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Washington, will deliver a keynote lecture titled “Leveraging Implementation Science to Advance Mental Health Services in Schools…And Beyond.”

Quinn said she is proud of the student committee for rising to the dual challenges of a pandemic and a renaming within one year. And while the need for a virtual setting may be temporary, the Hunter Student Research Conference will honor Hunter’s accomplishments for years to come.

“I really think we should be shouting Dr. Hunter's story from the rooftops both at the School of Education and Human Development and the larger University,” Thornton said. “We know that UVA was founded specifically to educate the "sons of the South" as Jefferson said, and the University recently recognized that slavery was at the core of our founding as an institution. I think Dr. Hunter's story in the face of this prejudice and systemic racism shows incredible courage and also intellectual curiosity. She was dedicated to her students and mentoring them to go as far as they could in life. She really embodied the best ideals of the School of Education and Human Development even in the face of so much racism and sexism.”

For more information and to register to attend the conference, visit the Hunter Student Research Conference website.